San Gwann car depot wants to extend further into fields

How piecemeal development turned Tal-Balal fields into car rental hub

Sprawling development – how the site changed from 1957 to today (aerial photos taken in 1967, 2004, 2012 and 2016)
Sprawling development – how the site changed from 1957 to today (aerial photos taken in 1967, 2004, 2012 and 2016)

It was only in June 2013 that the Planning Authority regularised the Europcar car rental facility located inside a disused quarry on San Gwann’s Tal-Balal road, which had already been restored to agricultural use by the 1950s.

Five years later the PA is again being asked to approve a 3,400 sq.m extension in the rest of the disused quarry which presently consists of agricultural land used to grow fodder.

But the planning history of the site, which starts with an enforcement order in 1994 against an illegal change-of-use, shows how a disused quarry used as a beverage distribution centre by Farsons was allowed to be operated as a commercial depot.

In 1995, the illegal beverage distribution centre was regularised against the advice of a case officer. Then a permit to regularise the extension of the site and its change of use to a car depot was issued in June 2013.

But the case officer then found that the only legal structures were a 150sq.m office building and a large 565sq.m canopy for the storage of beverages. “No other permit has been issued for the existing works on the site and it is clearly evident that some of the structures within the site and the use of the site are illegal,” the case officer said.

And after these illegal structures were regularised in 2013, another area was developed without a permit. A project statement by the developer from May 2017 points out that while “4,400sq.m are subject to permits”, a further 1,000sq.m are not.

Now the current application seeks to regularise this illegal development apart from extending the operations in the nearby disused quarry.

While the case officer has called for the application to be rejected, the PA’s planning commission – the body that takes decisions on a day-to-day basis – has indicated that the application can be approved because the car park extension is “reversible” and does not include any new structures. A final decision is due on 3 October.

But the case officer points out that the development is in breach of the local plan which designates the area of the car depot as an agricultural area: “The illegal extension onto undeveloped and uncommitted land and the proposed extension on undeveloped and uncommitted land for the proposed use (car depot) are not supported by any policy provision, would result in the loss of agricultural land and hence the proposal is objectionable in principle.”

Both the Environment and Resources Authority and the Iklin local council are objecting.

And while the case officer insists there is no evidence that this site was an actual quarry – apart from the fact that the proposed extension is at a lower level than the rest of the site – the PA’s planning commission is insisting that the site was formerly a quarry.

Aerial photos submitted in the processing of the application indicate that the site was already agricultural in 1957.

The developers insist it makes more sense to extend the current site than seek the development of a new one, and that the disused quarry located 15m below road level minimises the visual impact on its surroundings.

The soil taken from this site will be deposited in another site at Tas-Salib, Rabat, belonging to Mark Ciangura. The PA has already approved the deposition of soil on this land last year.

Europcar, which has a 700-vehicle fleet, is a leading car rental and leasing specialist. The company started out in the 1970s from a basement garage in San Gwann. In 2008 it shifted its entire operation to the Tal-Balal premises. The company insists that it is of “utmost importance” for it to retain its location and carry out the necessary expansion, both from an environmental perspective and from a logistics point of view.

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